“Awfully”

In the course of putting together a book based on this blog (you heard it here first!), I found that I am standing on the shoulders of Richard Grant White. White, a nineteenth-century American literary critic (and father of the architect Stanford White), coined the word “Briticism” in 1868, to mean words and usages that had sprung up in Britain (but not America) in the century or so since the countries had been apart. White didn’t look kindly on this phenomenon. Among the instances he cited was a peculiar British use of the word “directly”:

Directly.—The radical meaning of this word is, in a right line, and hence, as a right line is the shortest distance between two points, it means at once, immediately. Its synonyme in both senses is a good English word, now, unhappily, somewhat obsolete, straightway—our equivalent of which, right away, is laughed at by brother Bull as an Americanism. But John Bull himself uses directly in a way which is quite insufferable—to wit, in the sense of when, as soon as. This use of the word is a widespread Briticism, and prevails even among the most cultivated writers. For instance, in the London “Spectator” of May 2, 1867, it is said that “Directly Mr. Disraeli finished speaking, Mr. Lowe rose to oppose,” etc. Anglice, As soon as Mr. Disraeli finished speaking, etc. It is difficult to trace by continuous steps the course of this strange perversion, for which there is neither justification nor palliation.

He also complained about a supposed British insistence on saying “ill” instead of “sick” to describe someone who was under the weather.

They sneer at us for not joining in the robbery and the imposition. I was present once when a British merchant receiving in his own house a Yankee youth at a little party, said, “Good evening! We haven’t seen you for a long while. Have you been seeck” (the sneer prolonged the word), “as you say in your country?” “No, thank you,” said the other, frankly and promptly, “I’ve been hill, as they say in yours.”

He went on, “For the use of ill—an adverb—as an adjective, thus: an ill man, there is no defence and no excuse, except the contamination of bad example.” Like many language peevers through the ages, he was on shaky ground. In fact there was nothing new about adjectival “ill”: “By my troth I am exceeding ill” is a line from Much Ado About Nothing).

Another complaint was “awfully” to mean “very,” instead of its early meaning of “in a manner that inspires awe or terror.” White wrote, “The misuse is a Briticism; but it has been spreading rapidly here during the last few years.” And here he was on the mark. In fact, I put forth this intensifier “awfully” as the very first Not One-Off-Britishism.

The early citations in the OED (which labels it “colloquial”) are all British, starting with one from The Times in 1820: “Let any one..say whether the illustrious defendant [sic]..has not awfully strong grounds for protesting against the tribunal.” I happen to be reading Thackeray’s Vanity Fair—published in 1847-48 and set in the 1810s—and came upon a line where Becky Sharp thinks, “I suppose he will be awfully proud, and that I shall be treated most contemptuously.”

Ngram Viewer also confirms White’s impression.

It’s an interesting chart, showing significantly more frequent use in Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century (White’s era), and American topping Britain in about 1920.

Since then, the two countries’ use of the word have been awfully similar.

14 thoughts on ““Awfully”

  1. Ben your second sentence either lacks a verb or should merge with the
    third with an appropriate conjunction.   Tsk, tsk!

      1. “In fact there was new about adjectival “ill”” – shouldn’t it be something like “little new” or “nothing new”?

      2. Ben, a year or two ago, I checked with Ngram Viewer and found an apparent Noob from around 1820. Sadly I can’t remember what it was. I’ve looked in my draft emails, no luck. I will sit in a darkened room for a while; and keep you posted.

  2. I was interested to learn that ‘directly’, in the context of ‘immediately’ was once in widespread use in Britain. I had thought it peculiar to Cornwall, where it is still in use today, although – notoriously – compressed by the local accent as ‘dreckly’. In the Cornwall-set TV series ‘Doc Martin’, the character of Bert Large can often be heard using the word and pronouncing it that way.

    There is a song called ‘Camouflage’ (1986) by Stan Ridgway (Californian musician).
    “I was awfully glad to see this big marine…”
    “This was an awfully strange marine…”
    “This was an awfully big marine…”
    That was the first time I had heard an American use ‘awfully’ and I thought it highly incongruous: it sounded so British, to my ears. I can’t recall encountering its use by an American since, either. I will be listening more carefully for it in American media, etc. from now.

  3. I can sort of see where ‘awfully good’ comes from – it is so good it fills one with awe. But how did ‘frightfully good’, ‘terribly good’, ‘dreadfully good’, etc, also become intensifiers? Are these also used in the US?

  4. “Awfully” sounds awfully dated these days, it’s stuck, for me, with rather posh and Edwardian Peter Pan: “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”

    1. Yes: only used seriously by upper and upper-middle classes – otherwise used only for humourous effect.

      1. When I was young (in the 1950s and 60s), I remember my mother referring to upper class people disdainfully as “awfully awfully”.

  5. “Sick” is used in Britain, but it tends to be more scary over there. My American mother used to tell the tale of how the local women in Yorkshire corrected her when she mentioned that I or my brother was “sick”. The Yorkshirewomen asked in alarm what the story was and when my mother explained that there were sore throats and sniffly noses involved she was corrected that we weren’t “sick”, we were merely “poorly”. “Sick” would have implied being in hospital with tubes stuck in and machines wired on.

    I think this “poorly” isn’t much used in Southern England. It’s a Northern thing.

  6. Question regarding a Britishism — I believe the following headline from today’s Guardian is in English, but I can make no sense of what it means:

    “How people spent the day of the Downing Street leaving drinks”

    Does it mean that the subject of the story is how people spent the day leaving drinks at Downing Street? Is the word “leaving” here being used as a verb or a noun? If it is a noun, what is a “leaving”? What does “drinks” mean here? The concept of a “leaving drinks” is totally foreign to me.

    This seems to be a good example of how the US and the UK are linked by the Atlantic but divided by a common language.

    JNW

    1. Great question. In Britain, there is such a thing as a “leaving party” or “leaving do”–what Americans would call a “farewell party.” They also have a “drinks party”–what Americans would call a cocktail party. And probably it’s sometimes shortened to “drinks.” So my thought is that in the headline “leaving drinks” means would be what Americans would call a farewell cocktail party.

    1. I take sick leave, and I can be off sick, and we promise to remain married in sickness and in health, so although the I agree with Robbie about the primary meaning, there are other meanings that are sometimes used.

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